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The poll notes some erosion of overall support for tougher gun laws since the days immediately following the deadly school shootings last April in Colorado, but still offers plenty of ammunition to both sides of the debate in a divided Congress.
The telephone survey by ICR of Media, Pa., found 56 percent of American adults favored stricter gun laws and 39 percent opposed. Sixty-six percent of women favored the tougher laws, compared with 45 percent of men. Thirty percent of women and 49 percent of men were opposed.
"Women have the mother instinct and don't want guns around," said James Rowe, a 73-year-old semiretired contractor and gun enthusiast from San Diego.
In mid-April, just before the Colorado shootings, 55 percent of adults favored tougher gun laws. When the question was repeated in an AP poll a week after the shootings, the proportion jumped to 63 percent.
But while a majority favors stricter gun laws, only 43 percent in the latest poll said new laws would be more effective in reducing gun violence than better enforcement of existing laws. Those numbers are statistically unchanged from the poll taken before the shootings, but represent a sharp shift in opinion as measured in the post-shooting poll, when 51 percent chose tougher gun laws and 39 percent picked better enforcement of existing laws.
Public opinion on this question is fluid, evidenced by the shifts in the AP polls.
Republicans have found divisions in their own ranks. The Senate, with the help of some Republicans, agreed to legislation that requires background checks at all gun shows, outlaws importation of large-capacity ammunition clips and requires the sale of safety locks with handguns. House Republicans initially stripped out that language, but later asked for a compromise version that would require background checks for firearms sales at gun shows.
Theresa Flippin, a 24-year-old factory worker from Yellville, Ark., believes people should be able to own guns and use them for hunting. But she wants tougher gun restrictions on people who have criminal records.
"In the last five years, it's really gotten out of control," she said, "the school shootings, the drive-by shootings, the road-rage shootings."
More than half of Americans say recent shootings in the news have made tem worry more about their own safety. Almost two-thirds of women said they were likely to feel that way.
"I worry about my daughter when she goes to school," said 47-year-old Karen Cloud, a nurse from Lexington, Ky. Several women in the poll, when asked in interviews later how recent violence affects them, mentioned school shootings first.
Cloud said she wasn't surprised there is a gender gap on the gun control issue.
"I think a lot of men are just fascinated with guns and want to have them," she said. "I dated a guy who insisted that I learn how to shoot this rifle. It was so heavy, I couldn't even hold it. I went out and shot cans with it, but there was no point."
The poll of 1,026 people taken Aug. 27-31 indicated that blacks were far more likely than whites, by 83 percent to 52 percent, to support tougher gun controls. The poll had an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points, larger for subgroups like men and women. Democrats were far more likely than Republicans to support more restrictions, by 71 percent to 43 percent.
Both Democratic candidates for president, Vice President Al Gore and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, have suggested stringent steps to control access to guns. GOP front-runner George W. Bush, the governor of Texas, said recently that he agrees with some gun control steps, such as raising the age of gun ownership to 21 and banning large ammunition clips.
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